In her 1999 play Purapurawhetū, Briar Grace-Smith weaves her audience a story of simultaneously ordinary and epic proportions. Much like the audience, the play’s protagonist Tyler, a Māori teenager, finds himself immersed in a world where the logical and the extraordinary commingle boundlessly. The past and the present, the living and the dead, and the animate and the inanimate all converge within the play’s setting: the small coastal town of Te Kupenga. Grace-Smith’s invocation of these binaries reflects both the narrative strategies of magic realism as well as elements of Māori culture and storytelling. Thus, Grace-Smith creates a uniquely Māori dramaturgy, a term I borrow from David Carnegie and David O’Donnell’s analysis of fellow Māori playwright Hone Kouka (Carnegie and O’Donnell). Grace-Smith’s application of magic realism actively reinvents Western forms of dramatic realism as an “aesthetic act of decolonization” (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 247), deconstructing ‘rational’ Western perceptions of reality and, therefore, history (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 248). Through this aesthetic decolonization, Grace-Smith excavates the trauma of colonialism and establishes a path towards future healing for both her characters and her audience.
In an interview, Grace-Smith admits that although she did not set out to craft a piece of Māori theatre when she wrote Purapurawhetū, the play certainly falls under that category (O’Donnell, “Calming the Oceans” 272). There is perhaps no singular definition of Māori theatre; however, many definitions, such as Roma Potiki’s, emphasize its capacity to reassert identity and to stage historical reflection. Moreover, multiple definitions draw parallels between Māori theatre and magic realism. In the same interview, Grace-Smith describes several aspects of Māori theatre, such as non-linear storytelling, elements of Other, and influential ghost-like characters, which are also typically found in magic realist works such as Purapurawhetū (O’Donnell, “Calming the Oceans” 277).
In his book Decolonizing The Stage, Christopher Balme examines Māori theatre as a form of syncretic theatre that decolonizes the stage by fusing both European and indigenous performance forms (Balme 2). He emphasizes how many Māori practitioners aim to “indigenize the theatre as an institution and place of encounter” (Balme 62). Consequently, Māori theatre often involves “a new kind of perceptual frame” that advances “a theatrical concept that is part-reality and still part-utopia” (Balme 62-63). In Purapurawhetū, Grace-Smith utilizes the idea of weaving as a narrative framework, reflecting this intrinsically Māori theatrical frame that Balme highlights. Notably, Balme wrote his book in 1999, so Māori theatre has perhaps evolved past aspects of his definition. Regardless, this binary configuration of Māori theatre as part reality and part utopia reflects the binary formulation of magic realism. Hone Kouka echoes Balme’s classification of Māori theatre as a syncretic theatre when he describes how Māori theatre can only exist as a hybrid form because the idea of theatre did not exist in traditional Māori society (Kouka 241).
Roma Potiki’s 1999 landmark essay “A Maori point of view: the journey from anxiety to confidence” reflects Balme’s point that Māori practitioners actively seek to reinvent and “indigenize” the Western theatrical form. In this essay, Potiki describes the evolution and significance of Māori theatre. She identifies the driving force of Māori theatre as a need for Māori to re-establish their cultural identity and to take control over their own stories (Potiki 57). Significantly, theatre offers a type of mainstream historical legitimacy to Māori culture which an oral tradition lacks according to a Western perspective (Potiki 58). Potiki emphasizes how a large number of Māori plays deal with issues of the past in an attempt to reclaim history (Potiki 61). She describes how Māori theatre should search for truth, rather than recycling idealized or sanitized stories of the past, because “Maori theatre should have the power to and the conviction to both disturb, heal, and celebrate” (Potiki 60). Famously, Potiki asserts that “Maori theatre is Tino Rangatiratanga in action […] a visible claiming of the right to control and present our own material in the way which we deem most suitable and using processes that we have determined” (Potiki 57). Hone Kouka reiterates Potiki’s point, describing theatre as “another means of tinorangatiratanga (empowerment/self-determination) for Māori” (Kouka 243). Furthermore, multiple theorists1 invoke Potiki’s conception of “Tino Rangatiratanga in action” to define Māori theatre.
Ultimately, Potiki contends that the function of Māori theatre is to “deal honestly with what has happened and is happening to Māori people. The joy and hell that [they] as survivors of the damage colonialism have learned to live with and live through” (Potiki 63). Strikingly, Potiki’s formulation of Māori theatre reflects Eugene Arva’s conception of magic realism as a mechanism for rewriting historical traumas like colonialism, which he explores in his book The Traumatic Imagination: Histories of Violence in Magical Realist Fiction.2 Both Arva and Potiki recognize the power and importance of reworking the past and reclaiming history to engender healing through narrative means. Diana Looser also identifies theatre’s capacity to unearth the past–interrogating Western models of historical understanding enforced by colonialism–and “to re-present new histories […] and imagined futures” (Looser 2). In particular, theatre’s
concurrent aural and visual signifiers and its reliance on oral and physical modes of enunciation allow for the communication of multiple cultural messages; alternative representations of space and time that work against linear or teleological models; […] and participatory reciprocity between performer and audience that enables interpretive negotiation and debate (Looser 15).
Notably, Looser’s formulation of theatre reflects both magic realism’s subversion of linear and teleological models and Māori theatre’s excavation of the past through reinvented dramatic forms.
Accordingly, Grace-Smith employs magic realism within the genre of Māori theatre as both an aesthetic act of decolonization and as a mechanism to rewrite history on stage. This short dissertation will explore how Grace-Smith employs the narrative strategy of magic realism in her play Purapurawhetū. The literature review surveys key texts regarding the development and application of magic realism as well as criticisms of the form. It also explores theoretical overlaps between magic realism and trauma theory and briefly references other prominent analyses of magic realism in New Zealand theatre. Chapter one identifies the elements of magic realism in Purapurawhetū and examines how Grace-Smith actualizes these elements on stage. Moreover, it exposes certain overlaps between the conventions of magic realism and aspects of Māori culture, thereby problematizing applications of the term to Grace-Smith’s work. Chapter two identifies the intersection between magic realism and trauma in Purapurawhetū and offers this intersection as a potentially more enriching way to understand the play’s themes of individual and collective trauma. Ultimately, this short dissertation seeks to locate the idea of magic realism in relation to theatre and particularly in relation to Māori theatre by using Grace-Smith and Purapurawhetū as a case study. Consequently, it attempts to synthesize how Grace-Smith employs a uniquely Māori dramaturgy, paving the way for new theatrical forms.
We have the visual arts to thank for the term magic realism. Franz Roh, a German art critic, first used the phrase in his 1925 book Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus, which translates to “After Expressionism: Magic Realism.” Magic realist art in Central Europe served as a reaction to modern and avant-garde art and represented the cultural return to order that occurred after the First World War’s devastation. During this era, there was a close relationship between magic realism and French surrealism, and neo-romanticism. Later, art critics also applied the term to works by certain American painters of the 1940s and 1950s (“Magic Realism – Art Term”). The term became the literary mode that we understand today when Alejo Carpentier used it to describe a certain writing style in the 1940s. Still, magic realism did not become prominent in the literary world until after 1955 when critic Angel Flores applied the term to the works of Latin American writers Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“Magic Realism”).
While scholars originally associated magic realism with Latin American writers, they now increasingly apply the term to texts from a variety of different localities. Many scholars often assert that magic realism represents “a natural outcome of postcolonial writing” because it “must make sense of two separate realities–the reality of the conquerors as well as that of the conquered” (“Magic Realism”). In fact, critical theorist Homi K. Bhabha describes it as “‘the literary language of the emergent postcolonial world’” (Arva 4). While the term has only existed within the last century, writers have always employed elements of magic realism (“Magic Realism”). Thus, theorists such as Jeanne Delbaere-Garant retroactively apply the designation to fiction written before the term’s inception (Delbaere-Garant 249).
Magic realism, or rather examinations into the use of magic realism, have expanded so rapidly that its definition is often nebulous, and attempts to define it are often retroactive. Generally, however, scholars agree that it is a literary mode that “embeds elements of magic — nonempirically verifiable phenomena — within a realistic narrative” (Faris, “The Latin American Boom” 143). Other elements often found in magic realist works include not remarking upon the use of magic, the merging of individuals, the reconfiguring of identities, and the altering of temporal and spatial elements (Faris, “The Latin American Boom” 143). Faris situates magic realism as a postmodern phenomenon and invokes the idea that postmodernists should “‘be witnesses to the unrepresentable’” (Faris 153). Accordingly, her definition of magic realism anticipates magic realism’s associations with trauma representations, which scholars like Eugene Arva explore.
In her examination of magic realism as a postmodern occurrence, Wendy Faris identifies magic realism’s ontological disruption of identities combined with its temporal and spatial transformations. As an ontological literary mode, magic realism often engages with questions of existence and the stability of existence (Faris, “The Latin American Boom” 143). Many magic realists work, especially those that explore postcolonial contexts, have magic elements that “[stem] from hidden voices and beliefs and/or myths that have been suppressed” (Faris, “The Latin American Boom” 143). Faris refers to this element as anthropological because of its cultural implications (Faris, “The Latin American Boom” 143). Notably, Faris discusses how magic realism embodies the concept of liminality, oscillating between beings, cultures, and discourses. According to Faris, in magic realism “‘the world’s liminality and changeableness is not asserted merely as an article of faith but is actualized in a literary form of writing that oscillates constantly between the real and the magic and thus seeks to obliterate the boundary between them’” (Faris, “The Latin American Boom” 143). By obliterating this boundary, writers deconstruct their audience’s preconceived notions of a ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ reality.
Definitions of magic realism struggle against and sometimes even collapse under the weight of different cultural perspectives because as Faris states, “what one culture calls magic, another culture, with a different belief system that includes faith in phenomena beyond empirically defined reality, calls real” (Faris, “The Latin American boom” 143). Consequently, criticism of the genre has increased as more scholars seek to apply the term and are then confronted by its limitations. Criticisms focus on two main areas: the efficacy of the genre itself and its implications. Many criticisms purport that the designation of magic realism functions as a commodified primitivism that “relegates colonies and their traditions to the role of cute, exotic psychological fantasies–visions of the colonizer’s ever more distant, desirable, and/or despised self-projected onto colonized others” (Faris, “The Question of the Other” 101). Similarly, anthropologist Michael Taussig asserts that magic realism represents cultural exploitation in which the colonial ruling class appropriates the fantasies of subordinated peoples to enrich European realism (Faris, “The Question of the Other” 116). Essentially, magic realism creates “‘a division of labor into those who rule and those who supply them with magic’” (Faris, “The Question of the Other” 104). Other criticisms identify the genre’s nostalgic indulgences, growing commercialism, “reductionist essentialisms,” and evasive nature (Faris, “The Question of the Other” 105). Unsurprisingly, these criticisms have been met with equal defenses. For example, rather than the cultural exploitation that Taussig describes, Faris contends that magic realism is itself an entirely new literary mode, rather than an indigenous adaptation of realism. Furthermore, she asserts that writers on all sides of and between cultural divides can and do use magic realism to enrich political and social discourses (Faris, “The Question of the Other”). Other significant theorists, such as Eugene Arva, echo this sentiment that magic realism cannot be restricted by geography or by culture (Arva 3), opposing early theorists who conceived of magic realism as a strictly Latin American or postcolonial phenomenon.
Although certain scholars have advocated for expanding magic realism’s usage beyond postcolonial localities, there remains a clear focus on the genre’s postcolonial aspects. Principally, the form not only represents an outcome of colonialism but also represents an essential decolonizing agent itself. As previously discussed, we often consider the genre to be a necessary outcome of colonialism because the binary opposition between magic and realism–and the implicit liminality between them–allows writers to distinguish between their own reality and the ‘reality’ imposed on them by colonialism. Scholars and magic realist writers often emphasize that magic realism is not just an outcome of colonization but an act of defiance against it: an act of decolonization. In his essay “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse,” Stephen Slemon describes that the language of magic realism creates a conflict between two oppositional systems. Due to their incompatibility, these two systems remain suspended in their conflict with the “other,” creating gaps within each of these opposing systems (Slemon 11). Faris responds to Slemon’s idea by emphasizing how this “suspension between two discursive systems resembles the colonial subject’s suspension between two–or more–cultural systems, and hence serves to reflect the postcolonial situation” (Faris, “The Question of the Other” 103). By providing an alternative to European realism in which new voices can emerge and in which these new voices can deconstruct and question the dominant reality, magic realism functions as a potent decolonizing agent (Faris, “The Question of the Other” 103).
Slemon further discusses the imaginative reconstruction that takes place in postcolonial cultures. He contends that this process “requires the recuperation of lost voices and discarded fragments, those elements pushed to the margins of consciousness by imperialism’s centralizing cognitive structures” (Slemon 16). Notably, this process Slemon describes bears resemblance to the post-traumatic experience in which the subject attempts to draw together the fragments of memories which have escaped him. This similarity is not surprising considering the postcolonial process that he describes inherently reflects the aftermath of the trauma of colonization. In contrast to criticisms of magic realism, Slemon celebrates the literary mode’s potential for postcolonial discourse. He sees magic realism as a form of liberation that
can transmute the ‘shreds and fragments’ of colonial violence and otherness into new ‘codes of recognition’ in which the dispossessed, the silenced, and the marginalized of our own dominating systems can again find a voice and enter into the dialectic continuity of on-going community and place that is our ‘real cultural heritage’ (Slemon 21).
While detractors of magic realism like Taussig see the genre as a subversive manifestation of colonialism that relegates the subordinated culture to the status of the magical ‘Other,’ proponents like Slemon acknowledge magic realism’s capacity to help colonized peoples shed their ‘Otherness’ and reclaim their subjectivity, reflecting Potiki’s assertion that Māori theatre is a form of self-determination.
As Slemon hints at, the postcolonial experience is essentially a traumatic one. Then, it is not surprising that magic realism, born out of the massive trauma of colonialism, is uniquely qualified to represent the unrepresentable: trauma. While the conventions of realism often make representations of trauma inaccessible, magic realism destabilizes conceptions of truth and reality and exposes the subjective constructions of knowledge and history (Langdon). Notably, Eugene Arva explores how magic realism can represent historical collective traumas like colonialism, genocide, and slavery. Magic realism “‘rewrites the vanishing real,’” making repressed historical trauma available again to readers (Faris, “Foreword” ix-x). Arva creates the term “traumatic imagination” to explain how magic realist texts transform traumatic memories into narrative memories, thereby reconfiguring them into a representable and, therefore, receivable form (Faris, “Foreward” x). For certain events, the overwhelming violence precludes the event from being rationalized and recorded within the psyche. Therefore, the use of imagination or magic is not a distortion of facts but rather “one of the most effective means of re-creating, transmitting, and ultimately coping with painful traumatic memories” (Arva 5). These magic realist texts fight to represent the unrepresentable and “to reconstruct events whose forgetting has proved just as unbearable as their remembering” (Arva 5). Arva also describes the traumatic imagination as a survival mechanism necessary for the confrontation of “the impossibility of remembering limit events and […] the resulting compulsive repetition of images of violence and loss” (Arva 5). Thus, magic realism’s temporal instability actualizes the compulsive return of these past traumas.
Arva posits that, unlike traditional realism, magic realism can represent traumatic events because “magic realist images and traumatized subjects share the same ontological ground, being part of a reality that is constantly escaping witnessing through telling” (Arva 6). According to Arva, the role of the audience as a witness is indispensable. Essentially, magic realism is “‘an intimate affair’” between the text and its reader (Arva 7). While Arva does not discuss theatrical magic realism, this “intimate affair” between the text and the reader would certainly exist between a theatrical audience and the on-stage story. Moreover, theatre’s capacity to actualize magic realism’s literary elements and bring them to life on stage might even increase this intimacy.
Notably, representations of trauma necessitate the act of witnessing because without witnessing through language the trauma cannot fully be known (Arva 48). Moreover, the act of bearing witness makes it possible to live with trauma because sharing the trauma integrates it into the collective memory of the community (Arva 39). Again, theatre might, in fact, offer a more potent medium than literary fiction to precipitate this witnessing. Moreover, this ability to generate communal closure recalls Potiki’s assertion that Māori theatre should have the power to heal (Potiki 60). Significantly, trauma narratives also have the capacity to engage readers as secondary witnesses, revealing their own personal trauma (Arva 36). Arva offers magic realism as an apparatus for “recovering and re-covering individual and historical traumata” when mimetic reality fails to represent the unrepresentable (Arva 285, 282). Therefore, magic realism is both a product of colonialism and one of the best mechanisms to reflect upon it and represent its trauma.
In New Zealand, Māori playwrights Hone Kouka and Briar Grace-Smith have emerged as two of the most prominent practitioners of magic realism. Notably, they do not always operate within the literary mode; however, scholars have extensively analyzed the use of magic realism in works such as Briar Grace-Smith’s Purapurawhetū and Hone Kouka’s Waiora. In his book Transgressive Itineraries: Postcolonial Hybridizations of Dramatic Realism, Marc Maufort3 utilizes Grace-Smith and Kouka to examine how magic realism operates as a hybridized dramatic form in Māori theatre (Maufort, Transgressive Itineraries). He more specifically analyzes the magic realist works of Grace-Smith in his essay “Recapturing Māori Spirituality, Briar Grace-Smith’s Magic Realist Stage Aesthetic.” In this essay, he re-emphasizes how Grace-Smith reinvents dramatic realism, developing a stage equivalent of postcolonial magic realism, as an “aesthetic act of decolonization” (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 247-248). He specifies how “intrusions of the supernatural world of ancestors, or indeed allusions to the universe of Māori mythology” are emblematic of Grace-Smith’s particular brand of magic realism (“Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 248).
Maufort invokes the terms mythic realism and grotesque realism to deconstruct Grace-Smith’s use of magic realism. These terms come from Jeanne Delbaere-Garant’s essay “Psychic Realism, Mythic Realism, Grotesque Realism: Variations on Magic Realism in Contemporary Literature in English.” In this essay, Delbaere-Garant coins the terms psychic realism, mythic realism, and grotesque realism as variations on magic realism. Psychic realism refers to magic realism produced inside the psyche while mythic realism refers to a form of magic realism in which the physical environment generates magic images. On the other hand, grotesque realism involves “any sort of hyperbolic distortion that creates a sense of strangeness through the confusion of interpenetration of different realms like animate/inanimate or human/animal” (Delbaere-Garant 256). This interpenetration of binary opposites conjures the idea of liminality, which Faris highlights in her definition of magic realism and which scholars like Marc Maufort, Diana Looser, and Christopher Balme associate with postcolonial forms of theatre like Māori theatre.
Notably, discussions of magic realism in theatre seem to stop at the written scripts, with scholars more often applying magic realism to theatrical texts than theatrical productions. Maufort identifies “metatheatrical modes of presentation” as a potential element of theatrical magic realism; however, he does not provide any other distinctive characteristics of what constitutes a “magic realist stage aesthetic” (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 251). As a borrowed literary term, magic realism can easily be confused with more established theatrical traditions such as surrealism (Adams 6) or expressionism (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 249). Thus, current scholarship fails to address how the change in medium to theatre affects magic realism as a mode of storytelling. Significantly, the medium of theatre provides a means to elevate and actualize the elements of magic realism (Adams i). Moreover, as Diana Looser’s research suggests, theatre holds a unique representational capacity that allows for the alterations of time and space inherent to magic realism (Looser 15). Therefore, any discussions of theatrical magic realism must contend with not only why theatre represents a unique mechanism for the application of magic realism but also why we lack significant critical discussions of how it functions on stage.
Staging Magic Realism and A Māori Dramaturgy In Briar Grace-Smith’s Purapurawhetū
In Purapurawhetū, Briar Grace-Smith presents a world of the seemingly impossible and irreconcilable binaries that both dominate magic realism and typify the Māori world. Over the course of three acts, the audience beholds a personified environment, multiple character transformations, a nonlinear timeline, the coexistence of the living and the dead, a fractured and destabilized reality, and a metatheatrical aesthetic. Consequently, Grace-Smith reveals specifically how to elevate and actualize these elements of magic realism on stage. Ultimately, however, Purapurawhetū is not simply a work of postcolonial magic realism as scholars like Marc Maufort suggest. Instead, through the shared elements of magic realism and Māori culture that the play presents, Grace-Smith establishes a uniquely Māori dramaturgy.
Throughout Purapurawhetū, Grace-Smith consistently personifies the physical environment in a manner reflective of both the conventions of magic realism and of a Māori worldview. It is almost as if the beach where the play takes place is another character in the unfolding tragedy. Accordingly, Maufort adopts Jeanne Delbaere-Garant’s term “mythic realism” to describe Grace-Smith’s work (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality”). Delbaere-Garant formulates mythic realism as a specific form of magic realism in which the physical environment generates ‘magic’ images and in which “‘the landscape is not a passive character’” (Delbaere-Garant 253). Indeed, Grace-Smith emphasizes the significance of the land and the power that it holds over the characters. Notably, land plays a fundamental role in Māori identity by both embodying the past and forming the foundation for the future. The land is a resource, but it is also the primary ancestor and a foundation that connects families (Ka’ai, Tania M, et al. 51). A large part of the Māori mana, translating to the “authority, power, control, influence and prestige in relation to atua, people, land, and the environment” comes from the land (Ka’ai, Tania M, et al. 17). Thus, land in Purapurawhetū holds a special significance beyond its function as a generator of magic images. It also functions as a link between the past and the present and as a reflection of Grace-Smith’s Māori dramaturgy.
Grace-Smith often reflects the action and tone of the play through changes in the physical environment. As the conflict between the characters increases in Act Two, she describes how the sea becomes rough and how Hohepa struggles to keep his balance within its choppy waters (Grace-Smith 66). Kui/Aggie Rose even comments that the wind and the sea are “all fired up about something” (Grace-Smith 66). Notably, Māori cosmology involves elemental deities such as Tawhirimatea who personifies the weather, and Tangaroa, the deity of the sea (“Takitimu The Gods of the Maori”). Accordingly, this personification integrates both the elements of magic realism and a Māori worldview.
As an active force, the environment not only reflects the play but also influences it. In fact, Grace-Smith illustrates that the environment holds great power over the characters. It is the act of walking into the sea that transforms the haggard Kui into her younger self, Aggie Rose (Grace-Smith 50). Later, Kui/Aggie Rose asks Tyler if he “know[s] what happens to Māori when they got no land,” and he replies that it “bums them right out” (Grace-Smith 68). Indeed, Mata obsesses over the land, haranguing his father Hohepa to sign over ownership of it. Yet, Mata’s obsession also represents a corruption of Māori culture as he has adopted a Pākehā perspective that conceives of land as simply a commodity.
Mata’s obsession reflects the reciprocal relationship between the characters and their environment that Grace-Smith establishes. She sets the play in the fictional town of Te Kupenga, which translates to “The Net,” referencing the “historically nurturing relationship between a fishing people and the sea” (Huria 8). However, this nurturing relationship has soured, and the net now traps the characters within a discontented and agitated environment, one that, as Kui/Aggie Rose says, is “all fired up about something” (Grace-Smith 66). This change in the characters’ relationship with their environment reflects the play’s greater allegorical commentary on colonialism, which tore many Māori families from the land of their ancestors, sometimes fracturing family relationships and connections to the land. Within the play, Grace-Smith repeatedly returns to this idea of a now fractured relationship with the land. After they lose their ancestral land, Kui/Aggie Rose’s family sells her into slavery to a gumdigger (Huria 9). The gumdigger forced Kui/Aggie Rose to work in the swamps all day and then assaulted her nightly (Grace-Smith 69-70). After escaping, she had no land to return to, and she became nomadic until she met Hohepa in Te Kupenga (Huria 9). Kui/Aggie Rose’s experience of losing her connection to her ancestral land, then being forced to work the land as a slave, and finally escaping but still having no land to call home reflects the fragmentation created by colonialism in New Zealand. Furthermore, the reference to gumdigging highlights the shift in the relationship between many Māori and their land. After losing the land that was once theirs, they were forced into gumdigging, working the land in conditions of abject poverty (Huria 9). Thus, Grace-Smith’s personification of the environment is both an element of magic realism and of Māori culture and also, a commentary on how colonialism changed this relationship between a people and their stolen land.
Throughout the play, Grace-Smith intertwines the ghostlike character of Bubba/Awatea with the physical environment that traps him. In the play’s opening stage directions, she describes how his voice is “a whisper like the wind or tide” (Grace-Smith 24). He also manifests his power over the play’s other characters through the physical environment, the sea, that traps him. For example, when Ramari looks into the ocean, Bubba/Awatea’s suffering overwhelms and paralyzes her. Moreover, he draws his father to the beach every day to search for him, yoking his father to the physical environment. Because Bubba/Awatea functions as a reminder of loss, both personal and cultural, his connection to the environment emphasizes both the immense significance of land in Māori culture and the danger that Kui/Aggie Rose describes in losing it–a danger that colonialism brought to life for many families after divorcing them from their ancestral land.
Maufort utilizes Delbaere-Garant once again when he selects her term “grotesque realism” to better define the particularities of Grace-Smith’s magic realism (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 251). Throughout Purapurawhetu, Grace-Smith offers the distortions and interpenetration of binary opposites inherent to grotesque realism through transformations. When Tyler and Ramari watch a past memory of Kui/Aggie Rose and Hohepa, Kui/Aggie Rose picks up her veil from the present “which now represents the baby” in this past memory (Grace-Smith 95). This interpenetration between past and present and animate and inanimate typifies magic realism’s capacity to bring together seemingly irreconcilable ideas and elements. However, it also reflects Grace-Smith’s configuration of a Māori dramaturgy. Notably, Māori culture dissolves the Western binary opposition between animate and inanimate. Instead, mauri, the life force, flows between all objects, both animate and inanimate (Ka’ai, Tania M, et al. 18). Accordingly, transformations of characters and time periods occur throughout the play. Kui/Aggie Rose maintains the dual identities of her past and present selves, and in several scenes, she and Hohepa transform into their younger selves, reenacting their past memories within the present. Strikingly, other characters like Ramari and Tyler witness these transformations. If Hohepa and Kui/Aggie Rose were alone during these transformations, the audience might relegate them as outside of the play’s reality. Therefore, Tyler and Ramari’s presence validates the legitimacy of these transformations within the play’s reality–a reality in which the magic and the real exist concurrently and without hierarchy.
These transformations allow Grace-Smith to present a play with a decidedly nonlinear sense of time. She manipulates time so that Tyler and Ramari witness the past and present occur simultaneously as memories come to life. She then parallels these concurrent temporalities with the multiple, coexisting localities of the play to deconstruct conceptions regarding time and space as they relate to perceptions of the objectivity or singularity of ‘reality.’ Throughout the play, she utilizes split scenes to represent multiple locations at once. The play both opens and closes with these split scenes. The characters even acknowledge this deconstruction of time. Kui/Aggie Rose jokes to Tyler: “You heard of Māori time? I’m ten times slower than that” (Grace-Smith 42). In a climactic moment in the play, Tyler enters into the past memory that he is watching. He is able to exit his present and come in between Hohepa and Kui/Aggie Rose’s past selves, “breaking the moment” between them and bringing them all back into the present (Grace-Smith 72). These manipulations of time and space force the audience to abandon their Western linear modes of thinking and embracing the world of Purapurawhetu. Moreover, they locate Purapurawhetu within a distinctively Māori theatrical world because they reflect a Māori conception of time in which “Māori ‘move into the future with their eyes on the past’” (Ka’ai, Tania M, et al. 21), reinforcing Grace-Smith’s construction of a Māori dramaturgy.
Through her deconstruction of time and space, Grace-Smith also establishes an essentially fractured and destabilized reality within the world of the play. In this way, magic realism and its “ephemeral and uncanny fusion of apparently irreconcilable objects, ideas or situations” function to reject “the basic Western rational dichotomy between reality and its contrary” (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 250). Principally, Grace-Smith fractures the play’s initial reality through her injection of memories. The legitimacy of these memories, bolstered as both the other characters and audience, who witnesses them, destabilizes the primacy of a singular reality. Even the play’s characters find themselves questioning their reality. Ramari asks Tyler: “Are you sure this is for real?” He says, “You think I’m imagining it don’t you?” to which she replies: “Yes … no … I dunno” (Grace-Smith 84). This uncertainty parallels Grace-Smith’s destabilization of their central reality. Furthermore, because memory functions at times as a complement to history (Looser 16), Grace-Smith’s erosion of the construct of memory also reveals the constructed-ness of history itself, thereby further rejecting Western historical frameworks.
Grace-Smith not only disrupts the singularity of the play’s reality but also its objectivity as each character experiences a slightly different reality. For example, Ramari describes how Hohepa suffers from a “hallucination,” (35) and Mata later rejects Hohepa’s claim that Kui/Aggie Rose is in town, telling his father that “she’s in your head, that’s where she is” (Grace-Smith 89). Yet, the audience knows that Hohepa is not hallucinating but actually being haunted by his past and that Kui/Aggie Rose is in fact really in town. Then, these moments of dramatic irony reiterate how each character perceives and experiences reality differently, further destabilizing the presupposed singular objective reality found in traditional Western dramatic realism. Notably, it is specifically some of the play’s second and third-generation characters, like Ramari and Mata, who question this destabilized reality, demonstrating the influence of their Westernized worldview compared to their parents and elders.
In his analysis of Grace-Smith, Maufort emphasizes her use of “intrusions of the supernatural world of ancestors, or indeed allusions to the universe of Māori mythology” (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 248). He references Delbaere-Garant’s mythic realism to highlight “the interpenetration between everyday reality and the mythical universe of Native culture” (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 250-251). Indeed, Purapurawhetū does involve so-called “supernatural” and “mythical” elements. Grace-Smith presents Bubba/Awatea as stuck in between life and death as he haunts the play. When he finally ascends into a true afterlife, he describes “the place where I dance is an over place. /An above place. /From here we can see everything. /We touch and circle and laugh. /Mostly we sparkle” (Grace-Smith 111). His description of the afterlife references narratives described both by Mata and by Kui/Aggie Rose earlier in the play. Mata tells Ramari that the “stars in the night sky [are] […] the spirit of someone [….] revered who has passed away. They watch over us, so the legend goes” (Grace-Smith 32). Kui/Aggie Rose echoes this sentiment when she tells Tyler “Purapurawhetū. When someone special dies, their spirit joins the others in a wild tango across the night sky” (Grace-Smith 41). Notably, Mata, who has become decidedly Westernized, relegates this story to the world of “legends,” while Kui/Aggie Rose presents it as fact. Through the repetition of this narrative, Grace-Smith represents Bubba/Awatea’s ascension as part of the customary Māori lifecycle.
However, Maufort’s emphasis on these “supernatural” elements within Grace-Smith’s work problematizes his analysis for several reasons. First, it recalls criticisms of magic realism that contend that the genre or the use of the genre as a designation exoticizes the subordinated culture and relegates it to the status of the magical ‘Other’ (Faris, “The Question of the Other”). Furthermore, Maufort’s application of magic realism to classify Grace-Smith’s work undermines the concurrent elements of Māori culture within it. While Grace-Smith does present presumed “supernatural” elements, she does not depict them as fantastic. Rather, she places these “supernatural” elements on equal ground with the play’s more “realistic” elements. For example, both the audience and the play’s characters can hear Bubba/Awatea, legitimizing his existence as a noncorporeal entity within the more “realistic” framework of the narrative and locating the play within a distinctively Māori world in which the living and the dead are plausibly connected.
Although Maufort identifies that Briar-Grace Smith does indeed present a specific magic realist stage aesthetic, he never concretely defines what comprises this aesthetic or how it differs from magic realism as a literary mode. Despite this gap in Maufort’s analysis, Grace-Smith offers many examples throughout Purapurawhetū of how magic realism functions on stage. Grace-Smith deftly recognizes theatre’s capacity to elevate and actualize the elements of magic realism, providing staging opportunities that highlight the play’s magical realist depiction of time, location, and character. In her notes on the play’s set, she describes that there are “two spaces in Purapurawhetū [sic]. One was the whare raranga where Tyler worked […]. The other was the beach” (Grace-Smith 21). She utilizes these two spaces throughout the play to stage split scenes, representing multiple, coexisting locations. For the character transformations, she notes that the same actors should play both the past and present versions of Hohepa and Aggie/Rose. This further emphasizes how multiple temporalities exist concurrently because the same actor exists within these fractured realities. On the other hand, if two separate actors played the past and present selves, the audience might code them as essentially disparate, which they are very much not. Moreover, this casting further reflects her Māori dramaturgy, illustrating a retrospective Māori conception of time.
As previously discussed, the inanimate object of Kui/Agie Rose’s veil transforms into baby Bubba/Awatea during a memory scene. This use of props and staging to represent the intermingling between the worlds of the animate and inanimate affirms how Grace-Smith reimagines the literary characteristics of magic realism and elevates them to bring them to life on stage. Moreover, it represents a specific staging opportunity for her Māori dramaturgy, actualizing the life force of mauri which flows between all objects, both animate and inanimate. Grace-Smith also shifts the play away from presumptions of a ‘rational’ reality through characters’ movements and physicalities. At the beginning of the play, when Tyler weaves, his movements are “small” (24); however, as the play continues and Tyler increasingly interacts with the play’s ‘magical’ elements, his movements grow “larger” (47) until finally “his movements are stylized, dance-like” as he weaves (Grace-Smith 75). Tyler’s stylized weaving also calls attention to the metatheatrical significance of weaving throughout the play, which is both an important part of the plot and reflective of its narrative structure. Metatheatrical inventions such as these help Grace-Smith “to make the familiar appear unfamiliar,” thereby further subverting her audience’s expectations (Maufort, “Recapturing Māori Spirituality” 251).
In Purapurawhetū, Grace-Smith certainly employs many of the familiar characteristics of magic realism. From her personification of the play’s environment to her use of nonlinear time, transformations, and fractured realities, Grace-Smith presents a play that subverts the aesthetic sensibilities of Western dramatic forms and advances a unique Māori dramaturgy. In the process, she also reveals how theatre functions to elevate and fully realize both the characteristics of magic realism and the elements of her Māori dramaturgy. However, by only focusing on Grace-Smith’s use of magic realism, scholars like Maufort fail to acknowledge the significance of the intersections between magic realism and Māori culture, blinding them to the full story that Grace-Smith weaves.
The Place Where The Land Meets The Sea: Haunting Liminal Spaces, Collective Trauma, and Identity in Purapurawhetū
Through the convergence of seemingly antithetical binaries–life and death, past and present, animate and inanimate–Grace-Smith establishes the inherent liminality of life in Te Kupenga, and thus of the Māori world in general, and explores how this liminality expresses trauma. Just as magic realism embodies this concept of liminality (Faris, “The Latin American Boom” 143), trauma forces the traumatized subject into a liminal space of survival (Stuart Fisher 113). It is in this liminal space of survival in which we meet the characters of Purapurawhetū. Set in a small coastal town–the liminal space between land and sea–Grace-Smith explores how such liminal spaces trap characters and reverberate their trauma.
Symbolically frozen in time, the characters of Purapurawhetū literally struggle against their pasts as they attempt to move forward into the future. They grapple both with their own personal traumas and with the greater collective trauma of colonialism which has attempted to suppress their culture and wrench apart their community. Through the play’s liminal spaces, Grace-Smith forces her characters to confront the hauntological manifestation of their trauma–literally embodied through the presence of Bubba/Awatea–so that they can reformulate and reclaim their identity. Through this process, Grace-Smith proposes that in the face of trauma, there is immense power in the act of witnessing, of seeing and of being seen, and through the play’s metatheatrical construction, she encourages her audience to become witnesses, to confront their past, and, ultimately, to be seen.
Magic realism offers a mechanism for representing both the individual and the collective traumatic experience. Its liminality, embodied by its capacity to oscillate between the worlds of ‘the magic’ and ‘the real,’ supports a multiplicity of experiences and ways of knowing the world. This is essential in representing the traumatic experience, which, by definition, is that which “‘resists simple comprehension’” (Stuart Fisher 112). In her book Trauma: Explorations In Memory, Cathy Caruth describes “the radical disruptions and gaps of [the] traumatic experience” that bring “us to the limits of our understanding” (Caruth 4). By privileging concepts such as objectivity and truth, dramatic realism fails to account for the contradictions that characterize the traumatic experience and especially the postcolonial traumatic experience which has been erased from many of the official versions of history.
Notably, representations of collective trauma often come in the form of narratives of individual trauma, such as in Purapurawhetū, a story that is ostensibly about the characters’ personal traumas. On the surface, a character may be addressing his personal trauma; however, subconsciously, he is performing a greater historical trauma (Arva 174). Then, the writer is not writing about the historical trauma but rather rewriting the historical trauma itself (Arva 13). Thus, writers do not even need to define the larger historical traumas that they reference because they are implicit within the magic realist images themselves (Arva 41). Accordingly, while Purapurawhetū does not explicitly engage with the trauma of colonialism, the themes of traumatic loss, rendered through the lens of magic realism, expose how its trauma still haunts the play’s characters.
Within the play, Grace-Smith presents liminal spaces as magical wellsprings with immense power, such as when the Kui enters the sea and transforms into Aggie Rose. Yet, these liminal spaces also function as dangerous traps, paralyzing the characters and preventing them from moving forward. The name Te Kupenga, “The Net,” establishes how these liminal spaces can malevolently trap the characters and suggests the process of vicarious traumatization. According to Arva, vicarious traumatization “involves the larger and more subtle process of intergenerational transmission […] trauma often unfolds intergenerationally; its aftermath lives on in the family–but no less pervasively in the culture at large” (Arva 34). Grace-Smith demonstrates this process of vicarious traumatization when Ramari visits the beach and the force of Bubba/Awatea’s trauma consumes and paralyzes her, leaving her “unable to move, unable to scream” (Grace-Smith 64). Through this process of vicarious traumatization, the audience can understand Purapurawhetū as a story of unresolved trauma which now has spread to immobilize an entire town.
In the opening of Purapurawhetū, Bubba/Awatea, the dead infant who haunts the world of the play, describes how he is trapped in a limbo-like liminal space between life and death. He cries out to both the audience and his family, saying: “Where? Where are you? There’s cold underneath, it got real sharp fingers. […] No one sees me. […] Where are the faces? The mouths making kisses? Don’t wanna stay here. All by myself. No one can see me” (Grace-Smith 24). Bubba/Awatea’s monologue conveys a sense of isolation as he has been disconnected from his community and left alone. Later in the play, Hohepa, Bubba/Awatea’s father, expresses a similar sense of isolation. As he stands on the beach, searching for his lost son as he has done every day for decades, he proclaims: “every memory lost. […] The clouds have covered the sea with their own image, and I can find nothing. […] The rocks cut, coldness bites at my fingertips and leaves my body numb. […] So cold, so cold and all alone” (Grace-Smith 37). Hohepa’s failure to find meaning as he searches but “find[s] nothing” reflects the pathology of the traumatic experience in which the subject cannot discern meaning from the hallucinations, flashbacks, and dreams that mark the resurgence of the traumatic event (Caruth 5). Furthermore, Bubba/Awatea’s spectral return mirrors the nature of traumatic dreams in which the subject, in this case, Hohepa, experiences “the literal return of the event against [their] will” (Caruth 5). Consequently, these traumatic resurgences, embodied by Bubba/Awatea, continue until the other characters finally confront this repressed trauma.
The beach, where Hohepa and Bubba/Awatea find themselves trapped, represents both the convergence of the liminal space between land and sea and the epicenter of the traumatic experience within the play; it is the physical location in which trauma manifests itself, such as when it paralyzes Ramari. Notably, beaches represent a fluid physical and cultural boundary between two unknowns, and as a liminal space, they reflect cross-cultural encounters. The process of “beach crossings inaugurate[s] national histories and also link[s] a regional imaginary through colonial experience or through precolonial voyaging and interculturalism” (Looser 76). Beaches function broadly as a metaphor for “practices of historical understanding” (Looser 76), so by situating the beach as the epicenter of trauma within Purapurawhetū, Grace-Smith alludes to the trauma’s origin: colonialism. Moreover, through the physical location of the beach, Grace-Smith further affirms how these liminal spaces represent powerful metaphors for trauma. Like the traumatic experience, which is characterized by the continuous return of a past event, these liminal spaces yoke the characters to their past, keeping them in a perpetual state of in-betweenness that prevents them from healing and moving into the future.
In her definition of trauma, Caruth describes its “haunting power” (Caruth 4). Consequently, Grace-Smith personifies trauma through the ghost-like character of Bubba/Awatea, whose haunting voice opens the play. While he is never seen, only heard, his influence over the play and its characters is substantial. Significantly, Bubba/Awatea is not just an incorporeal spectre alluded to by the other characters. He is a real character who has tangible, physical power and influence over the world of the play. He is not only able to paralyze Ramari when she visits the beach but also able to throw Hohepa to the ground with the power of his pain (Grace-Smith 46). By endowing Bubba/Awatea with the capacity to affect real, perceivable change upon the other characters, Grace-Smith emphasizes the immense power of trauma and the subsequent damage in repressing it, damage that spreads through the process of vicarious traumatization. Moreover, Bubba/Awatea’s presence corresponds to several shared characteristics of trauma and of magic realism including the temporal instability that allows elements from the past, like him, to reemerge in the present.
In her formulation of mythic realism, Jeanne Delbaere-Garant posits that the term is suitable for “countries from which indigenous cultures have largely vanished, even though they remain hauntingly present in the place itself” (Delbaere-Garant 253). While Māori culture certainly has not vanished in Purapurawhetū or in contemporary New Zealand, Grace-Smith still expresses a sense of cultural loss throughout the play and the characters’ past literally haunts them through the character of Bubba/Awatea. At one point, Ramari remarks to Tyler that “all the old people have passed away, [and] most of the young ones have moved on” (Grace-Smith 35). Her comment alludes to the cultural fissure that the characters in Purapurawhetū experience as knowledge fails to be transferred to the next generation. Notably, Hohepa is unable to pass on this knowledge because he is cognitively lost within the liminal space of trauma that traps him. Moreover, this cultural fissure also reflects the greater allegory of colonialism which suppressed Māori culture, disrupting its transmission to future generations.
Both Delbaere-Garant’s mythic realism and Bubba/Awatea, Purapurawhetū’s allegorical spectre, echo Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology. This portmanteau of haunt and ontology refers to situations in which “the priority of being and presence [is replaced] with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive” (Davis 373). Essentially, hauntology confronts “a cultural impasse: the failure of the future” (Fisher 16). Notably, Derrida’s formulation of hauntology recalls the irreconcilable binaries and liminality of magic realism. In Purapurawhetū, the “failure of the future” is the repressed trauma and its resulting cultural rupture that prevents the characters from healing and moving forward. Consequently, Bubba/Awatea emerges as a hauntological spectre, “neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive,” who not only manifests the characters’ personal trauma but also a greater collective trauma. Significantly, infanticide, the principle trauma within the world of the play, functions as a symbol of cultural loss because it represents a rift between generations. Then, Grace-Smith denotes the characters’ personal trauma, the infanticide, as part of a larger allegory concerning the unaddressed collective trauma of cultural damage in the wake of colonialism. Moreover, through her creation of Purapurawhetū, she actively challenges this real-world failure to confront the trauma of colonialism, reflecting Potiki’s assertion that Māori theatre should both deal with the wound of colonialism and engender hope for the future
This formulation of Bubba/Awatea as a hauntological spectre personifying the Western cultural failure to confront the trauma of colonialism reflects Arva’s conception that historical trauma inherently cannot be left in the past. Magic realism’s dissolution of temporal boundaries allows writers to keep
the real story alive, the one that re-creates past traumatic events by attaching them to present effects and making them matter to the modern consciousness. Remembering the horrors of the past amounts to more than paying homage to the memories of their victims: it is also an identity-forming and healing act that entails confronting the unspeakable and coming to terms with trauma (Arva 14).
Then, Bubba/Awatea, a character who is neither dead nor alive, bridges the gaps between past and present and life and death and functions to conserve the memories of past trauma through his liminal existence until these traumas can be resolved and healing can begin. Notably, he actively tries to resolve these traumas throughout the play, drawing Hohepa to the beach each day and crying out to his family.
Despite the dark issues that Purapurawhetū explores, Grace-Smith still offers her audience a decisively redemptive story. Through Bubba/Awatea’s hauntological presence, she not only cautions that the erasure of cultural identity can engender trauma but more importantly that the reassertion of identity through the act of witnessing can generate healing. However, before characters like Bubba/Awatea and Tyler are finally seen, they exist in the ontological liminal space between existence and nothingness. Tyler describes being lost and alone until Doris adopts him, formally asserting his identity by naming him Tyler (Grace-Smith 79). Similarly, Bubba/Awatea expresses a fundamental need to be seen, exclaiming: “See me. Find me. Tell them who I am” (Grace-Smith 105). Like Tyler, Bubba/Awatea is only freed from his liminal prison between existence and nothingness when the other characters finally bear witness to him and his trauma, formally acknowledging and naming him. Hohepa grills Mata, Bubba/Awatea’s killer, saying: “Remember him! […] Give him his name! […] Ko wai ia! Ko wai ia [Who is he? Who is he?] […] Ko wai tōna ingoa? Ko wai? Ko wai? [What is his name? What? What?]” until Mata finally concedes and proclaims: “Awatea! […] Ko Awatea tōu ingoa! [Awatea is your name!] (Grace-Smith 107). Significantly, Mata’s acknowledgment occurs in te reo, the Māori language, indicating how this assertion of Bubba/Awatea’s individual identity is inextricably tied up with his cultural identity.
The act of storytelling itself is an act of witnessing (Arva 22). Thus, when Bubba/Awatea exclaims “they are weaving my story Daddy. Please listen, please listen. See me. Find me. Tell them who I am,” he is expressing a fundamental need for his trauma to be witnessed (Grace-Smith 105). Significantly, “living with trauma becomes possible by bearing witness to it, by testifying […] Telling the story may not bring, ultimately, any kind of closure but integrate, rather, that which has resisted telling into the victim’s lives and into their community’s collective memory” (Arva 39). Therefore, by weaving Purapurawhetu, Tyler–like Grace-Smith herself through the act of writing Purapurawhetū–draws together the threads of his community’s stories as a formal act of witnessing and, consequently, of healing.
The play ends how it begins: with the voice of Bubba/Awatea. This time, he celebrates escaping limbo, describing “the place where I dance is an over place. /An above place. /From here we can see everything. /We touch and circle and laugh. /Mostly we sparkle. / My name is Awatea” (Grace-Smith 111). This monologue reflects how he has finally found meaning and understanding after the traumatic experience; he “can see everything.” Moreover, his use of “we” suggests that he has been reunited with his ancestors and community, repairing the cultural fissure caused by his death. Through the final line of the play “My name is Awatea,” Grace-Smith cements the notion that the act of reclaiming and asserting one’s identity generates healing.
Notably, Grace-Smith meta-theatrically structures Purapurawhetū based on the idea of weaving her audience as secondary witnesses. In his introduction to the play, John Huria describes how “the pattern of the tukutuku panel orders the play paralleling the ohaki, by visually representing to future generations the oral revelation of painful events that occurred some time ago, and by signifying the rightful order of things” (Huria 15). Within the story itself, Grace-Smith emphasizes the inherent power of weaving. Ramari sees weaving as an avenue through which to establish a tangible cultural legacy for herself, telling Tyler that “in fifty years time, my mokopuna could be sitting here in the wharenui underneath this panel. They’ll be admiring it and touching it and saying things like, ‘Our kuia, Ramari, made this panel” (Grace-Smith 30). For Bubba/Awatea, the act of weaving provides an opportunity for his community to finally bear witness to his trauma. Hohepa describes hearing his son cry out: “They are weaving my story Daddy. Please listen, please listen. See me. Find me. Tell them who I am” (Grace-Smith 105). Thus, by emphasizing the power of weaving within the story and then framing the story itself with the metatheatrical device of weaving, Grace-Smith draws her audience’s attention to their position as secondary witnesses to the trauma of colonialism.
In keeping with Roma Potiki’s assertion that Māori theatre should “heal” (60), Grace-Smith proposes in the preface to Purapurawhetū that “in order to move into the future we must make peace with our past” (Grace-Smith 20). Indeed, over the course of the play, we witness the characters make peace with their past trauma, embodied by the hauntological spectre of Bubba/Awatea so that they can finally break out of the liminal stasis which traps them and move forward into their futures. By framing her play with the metatheatrical device of weaving, Grace-Smiths situates her audience as secondary witnesses. Like the play’s characters, the audience is seen, and through that recognition, Grace-Smith empowers them to begin their own process of healing.
Significantly, Arva contends that magic realism functions as a means of communication through which stories of historical trauma “are still alive because they have been constantly addressed to an audience willing to listen, or ultimately, to bear witness to trauma. […] ‘Witnessing involves wanting to change the kind of world where injustice, of whatever kind, is common’” (Arva 285) Furthermore, in his introduction to Purapurawhetū, Huria contends that “the play asks a people who are heir to intergenerational trauma and displacement to become agents of their own healing” (Huria 18). Perhaps, then, Grace-Smith also asks her audience–who like the play’s characters are heir to the collective trauma of colonialism–to follow her characters’ example and become agents of change and healing. If as Arva contends, readers and, therefore audiences, implicitly co-write texts (Arva 287), then Purapurawhetū is not just a story of healing but a provocation for real-world change.
Purapurawhetū is a landmark piece of theatre. Not only does it function to re-establish cultural identity and reclaim history, as Roma Potiki describes Māori theatre should, but it also reflects her objective that Māori theatre should all at once “disturb, heal, and celebrate” (Potiki 60). Certainly, Purapurawhetū disturbs as it confronts the audience with a story of infanticide and, consequently, a story of the trauma of colonialism. However, it also offers healing, for its characters and for its audience, and through this healing celebrates the resilience of humanity and especially the resilience of Māori culture. Through her rewriting of history, Grace-Smith stages “Tino Rangatiratanga in action” (Potiki 57), presenting her characters’ path to self-determination. Moreover, she situates her audience as witnesses and not only challenges their preconceived conceptions of reality and of history but also urges them to bring this new awareness out of the theatre auditorium and into the real world.
Grace-Smith both offers a typical representation of magic realism, with its shifting temporalities, realities, and characters, and at the same time challenges receptions of magic realism that only focus on these so-called ‘magical’ elements. The character of Bubba/Awatea typifies this paradox. By only focusing on the ‘magical’ or ‘supernatural’ qualities of his character, analyses fail to recognize how his perceived ‘magical’ qualities function for a greater purpose: to personify the trauma that reverberates throughout the play. Moreover, Grace-Smith complicates the designation of magic realism by locating her play within an explicitly Māori world in which many of the conventions of magic realism are also legitimate aspects of Māori culture. Thus, if Grace-Smith uses magic realism, she is doing so in a manner that subverts many critical conceptions of the genre and challenges audiences and critics not to place the confines of their Western perspectives on indigenous theatrical forms like Māori theatre. Ultimately, Grace-Smith endows her play with a distinctive Māori dramaturgy that not only deconstructs Western dramatic realism, decolonizing the stage and rewriting history but also inaugurates a new dramatic form.
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